Calls to rearrange Michigan's institutional deck chairs are a sign of frustration with failed policies, a political class seemingly incapable of changing them, and the excessive reform-killing influence of politically powerful public employee unions. Joining proposals for a part-time legislature, unicameral legislature, biannual budgeting, "fair tax" and other reform stalwarts is the latest political fad: a runoff election, or "jungle primary" system.
Senate Bill 1350 sponsored by Sen. Mickey Switalski (D-Roseville) has been introduced to institute the system in Michigan. In California, Proposition 14 was just placed on the ballot to do the same. Ballotpedia.org reports that a similar measure was defeated there in 2004, while voters in Washington state approved one in that same year.
Under a "jungle" or "Louisiana primary" regime, there are no partisan ballots in the August primary election. Instead, multiple Democrats, Republicans, Greens, Libertarians, Larouchies and whoever else are all thrown into the pot with each other, and the top two vote-getters appear on the November ballot, regardless of party. Given gerrymandered districts, and even just political/cultural/geographic realities, it's very likely that many if not most November legislative elections could feature just two Democrats running against each other, or two Republicans.
The system has been in place for many years in Louisiana, among other things producing the infamous 1991 general election between former Nazi and Klansman David Duke and ethically challenged former governor Edwin Edwards, who later went to prison for racketeering. Among the bumper stickers from that race was, "Vote for the crook — it's important."
Another knock against the system is that it fosters political blandness and a race to the mushy middle. Here's how columnist George Will put it:
But, then, blandness is the point of this reform. It seeks to generate a homogenized political class, one not lumpy with liberals and conservatives who, being conviction politicians, do not always play well with others. ... Does America need a nominating process that narrows choices by stacking the deck against minor parties? Does it need a process that produces 'pragmatic' candidates who, because they have no ballast of 'ideology,' aka ideas, and are not rendered 'rigid' by convictions, can 'reach across the aisle' to achieve compromises congenial to the entire political class?
Some may think so, but a more objectively damning critique comes from long-time initiative-and-referendum expert Richard Winger, who observes that the system adds another brick to the already formidable wall of incumbent protection. Among other evidence, Winger notes that in the 30 years that runoff elections were used to select members of Congress in Louisiana, not one incumbent was ever defeated.
As noted, Washington state has also adopted the system, and 2008 was the first election under it there. Says Winger in his Ballot Access News (and quoted by Ballotpedia.org), "(O)ut of 123 state legislative races, only one incumbent was defeated in the primary, and his reputation at the time of the primary was such that he probably would have been defeated under any election system."
As hinted in the opening paragraph, evidence suggests that Michigan's inability to solve its problems resides not in its institutions but in the excessive political power of government employees and their unions, which they use to stop or water down reforms. We saw that just a few weeks ago, as the Michigan Education Association union gutted a modest reform of school employee retirement benefits proposed by Gov. Jennifer Granholm. Efforts to break this stranglehold by rearranging the institutional furniture at best consumes energy better spent striking at the real root of our problems, and may do real damage if the particular reform risks tightening the existing "incumbent protection racket" operated by our inbred political class.
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